Friday, November 28, 2008

The Mayor of McDougal Street

As a music lover—even one who enjoys playing music more than going to shows—there are always a few performers you wished you’d seen before they shuffled off this mortal coil. For me, there are two in particular who fall into this category: Townes Van Zandt & Dave Van Ronk (odd that their cds stand next to each other on my more-or-less alphabetized shelves). I’ll always be jealous of good pal Dani Leone, who saw Townes at the amazingly intimate Spikes in Baghdad by the Bay, & I’ll always regret that evening sometime in the mid 90s when I knew Van Ronk was performing at the Freight & Salvage in Beserkley, but had something else I needed to do (forget what now….)

Sadly, Van Ronk passed away in 2002 at a relatively young 65. From the 1950s until his death, however, he was a larger-than-life figure on the folk m
usic scene, particularly in New York City, & particularly at that point where folk music intersects with the blues. It’s unfortunate that this marvelous musician isn’t better known among the public at large, tho he’s certainly admired both among the folkie crowd & by aficionados of fingerstyle guitar. Van Ronk’s fingerstyle playing, very influenced by the great Reverend Gary Davis, was first-rate. The Wikipedia article on Van Ronk (linked to above, & well worth a read, tho apparently not all source attribution is up to Wiki snuff) mentions that Davis played the guitar as tho it were “a piano around his neck,” & this seems a pithy description of both Davis’ & Van Ronk’s style.

Another thing Van Ronk had in common with Reve
rend Gary Davis was a big, powerful voice. Both these bluesmen were capable of singing like a force of nature—bringing a riveting & dynamic strength to their vocals (tho both were also capable of quiet, gentle singing when the song called for it). I know this sound from recordings—but it’s best described by folks who heard Van Ronk live. This, for instance, is from folk guitarist Happy Traum:
"I first heard Dave Van Ronk sing in 1955. It was a warm Sunday in Washington Square and from the opposite side of the park came the loudest, most raucous vocal sounds I had ever heard. I came upon a rather large young man flailing mercilessly on an old guitar and singing 'St. James Infirmary' at the top of his seemingly indefatigable lungs."
Happy, Traum, Traditional & Contemporary Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar, Oak Publications © 2005. (By the way, you fingerstyle guitarists o
ut there: this is a great book, & when you see Traum’s transcription of Van Ronk’s take on “St. Louis Tickle” you should be impressed by Van Ronk’s abilities—& by the size of his mitts, since he was effectively able to fret the A string with his thumb!)

A classic description of Van Ronk comes from music critic Robert Shelton: “[Van Ronk was] the musical mayor of MacDougal Street, a tall, garrulous hairy man of three quarters, or, more accurately, three fifths Irish descent. Topped by light brownish hair and a leonine beard, which he smoothed down several times a minute, he resembled an unmade bed strewn with books, record jackets, pipes, empty whiskey bottles, lines from obscure poets, finger picks, and broken guitar strings. He was Bob (Dylan's) first New York guru. Van Ronk was a walking museum of the blues. Through an early interest in jazz, he had gravitated toward black music its jazz pole, its jug-band and ragtime center, its blues bedrock..... his manner was rough and testy, disguising a warm, sensitive core. Van Ronk retold the blues intimately.... for a time, his most dedicated follower was Dylan." (copied from the Van Ronk Wikipedia page).It’s always been interesting to me that although Van Ronk made his reputation in blues & folk, he claimed to consider himself “a jazz singer manqué.” In fact, Elijah Wald (who collaborated with Van Ronk on the singer’s memoir, Mayor of McDougal Street) claims that Van Ronk owed more of his vocal style (in terms of phrasing & interpretation) to singers like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday & Bing Crosby. Wald’s article is really worth a read, & can be found here.Of course, it’s wrong to pigeonhole Van Ronk as "just a bluesman," because for all the wonderful interpretations he was able to put on songs ranging from “That’ll Never Happen No More” & “Cocaine Blues,” to “Statesboro Blues” & “St. James Infirmary,” his recording catalog includes songs by Joni Mitchell, Brecht-Weill, Hoagy Carmichael, Gershwin, a setting of a W.B. Yeats poem, & some wonderful original compositions, both vocal & instrumental. Later in his career he put out two albums that brought him back to the “old standards” of the Great American Songbook. These two albums, Hummin’ to Myself & Sweet & Lowdown are fine collections (some highlights: “Hong Kong Blues,” “Some of the Days,” “Comes Love,” & “Sweet Georgia Brown”). Although Van Ronk’s voice wasn’t as strong late in life, he could still get inside a song.But those who are looking to find out about Van Ronk might look at other albums. There’s a very complete Van Ronk discography here; if I were to be so bold as to offer a few suggestions, I’d mention the Chrestomathy compilation put out by Gazell—this has the virtue of showcasing lots of aspects of Van Ronk’s career. Another solid choice would be Inside Dave Van Ronk on Prestige, which focuses more on his folk & folk blues recordings. I’m also very fond of his Live at Sir George Williams University album, which showcases several musical styles, as well as his humor—after singing “St. James Infirmary,” Van Ronk notes that “Death is nature’s way of getting us to slow down.” has a good selection of Van Ronk here; & finally at the bottom of this post there’s a video of Dave Van Ronk performing Furry Lewis’ “Stackerlee’: the performance is prefaced by an interview with Van Ronk, & the playing starts around 2:26.

However you do it, please give a listen to this wonderful musician & genuine U.S. renaissance man.


  1. Paul Schoenwetter, who turns up several times in "The Mayor of MacDougal Street", was one of my early banjo mentors. He arranged for me to meet and get banjo tips from some of his old New York friends whenever they can through Philadelphia. In fact, Peggy Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten gave me my first banjo lesson.

    Paul tried over and over again to get in touch with Dave back then, but things just never worked out. After hearing so many of Paul's stories about the guy it still breaks my heart that we didn't get to meet.

  2. Thanks for the comment Patrick. Great to hear Elizabeth Cotton brought up in terms of the banjo; I've always liked her banjo playing, & it's a lot less known aspect of her musicianship than her wonderful guitar playing. It's always struck me that her "upside-down" technique on guitar kinda made sense in terms of banjo right hand technique. Love her (banjo) take on stuff like "Georgie Buck."

    From what I've heard of/read about Van Ronk, I think he'd have been a great guy to meet.


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.